Union Emerged Stronger Than Ever Out of Two Tough Weekends
by Adam Wodon/Managing Editor
BRIDGEPORT, Conn. No matter how good your team, no matter good your season, every team will face adversity.
What happens when hitting those crossroads often determines your fate. Your season could get derailed, or it can bring a team closer together.
Union hit two such turning points this season, and came through better off from both experiences. First, there was a poor performance at home against Colgate in early November, in which coach Rick Bennett privately and publicly had harsh words for his team. Then there was a post-game melee after a loss at Rensselaer, one that led to a four-game suspension for Bennett and single games for two of his players.
After the Colgate game, Union won nine in a row.
After the Rensselear loss and subsequent loss to St. Lawrence, the Dutchmen haven't lost since.
That is how good teams turn adversity into strengths.
Union was 3-2-2 when it hosted Colgate on Nov. 8, having lost twice to Lake Superior State at home, along with a tie at Connecticut. At the time, most people were forgiving Union for its record. It had made the NCAAs three years in a row, won two straight ECAC tournaments and went to the Frozen Four — remarkable achievements for a school that prior to that run, had never had that kind of success in Division I. So, if it needed a year to regroup, no one could complain.
But that's not how Bennett saw it. And when his team played dreadfully against Colgate in a 5-3 loss, he lit into the team.
"If you have passion for this game — maybe after the game, I had too much passion than need be," Bennett said at the time. "But sometimes that's the way it goes."
One play in particular bothered Bennett, when Colgate's Darcy Murphy suckered star defenseman Shayne Gostisbehere into taking a bad penalty.
"I'm an emotional guy, an emotional player," Gostisbehere said. "But coach knows it's a game of mistakes, and he sat me down after and said, look, guys are going to try to get under my skin. And I realized that, and it made me grow as a player and helped our team get better too. The coach has to ream at you sometimes.
"(He) just doesn't let us get too comfortable or complacent, that's the big thing. The moment you get too complacent or comfortable, something bad is going to happen."
The two had a lengthy video session. The next day, Union's defense held Cornell to 11 shots in a 3-0 win, and Gostisbehere had a goal to seal it.
"I talked to Shayne. He took it like a man," Bennett said. "It's never personal. And he was great about it. He rebounded (against Cornell) and he was excellent."
Union forward Daniel Carr said it was a sign of the team's growth that it could have a poor first period like it did against Colgate in last week's ECAC championship game, but turn it around within the game without having to get chewed out by their coach again.
"I just think we've grown as a team to the point where he can come into the locker room between periods and say, 'Guys, let's get going here.' And come out better in the second," Carr said. "And that's just how our team has learned. That's just part of Coach Bennett. He'll tell you what he thinks and it's tough on some guys, but it's kinda what's best for you."
From there, Union was off and running. The Dutchmen won the next nine, played to a tie at St. Cloud State, lost a tough 2-1 game at Quinnipiac, then reeled off another four wins, including a two-game sweep of New Hampshire in Durham.
And that's when the next trouble happened.
Union and RPI have become emotional rivals, with the schools separated by 14 miles. RPI dominated early, when Union was starting out in Division I. Lately, Union has dominated, winning 10 straight until that meeting in Troy when everything came to a head.
RPI defeated Union, 2-1, and afterwards, something — it's still not entirely clear what — triggered a reaction from Bennett that included taking a swing, and a miss, at RPI coach Seth Appert. Players were also involved on both teams, and in the end, there were numerous suspensions, including four games to Bennett and one game each to defenseman Mat Bodie and forward Daniel Ciampini.
Without those two players and Bennett, the Dutchmen lost at St. Lawrence the following Friday.
But instead of derailing the season, the team responded. It came back from down 2-0 to Clarkson the next night to win, and won the next two without Bennett as well.
The team hasn't lost since — a 25-3-2 stretch heading into the NCAA tournament.
There are many reasons why the team stayed on track. For one, it's a good team in the first place. Second, the players all believe in Bennett. They understand what happened shouldn't happen, but they also appreciate him for what he means to them, and they showed their appreciation of him in how they rallied behind him afterward.
"Being kinda one of the guys in the middle of that, that's not how we want to represent our school," Carr said. "But I think as a player, coach Bennett is one of those guys you love to play for. He wears his heart on his sleeve. And he'll stick up for you no matter what."
Third, the assistant coaches for Union, Joe Dumais, Jason Tapp and John Ronan, are widely respected by everyone in the locker room.
"For our team, it was a big growing point, because Coach Dumais, Coach Tapp and Coach Ronan stepped up in a big way," Gostisbehere said. "Coming back and winning was a big growth point for our season. Guys stepped up big in situations there."
Said Carr, "Coach Dumais, I know (former defenseman) Greg Coburn said it last year, he may be one of the best coaches we've ever played for. He's unbelievable. (All assistants are) just so good at making in-game adjustments, and when they took over that weekend, we just didn't miss a beat."
It's not something Bennett wants to talk about anymore. As far as he's concerned, it's long over. If anyone asks, he'll tongue-in-cheek refer to it as his "vacation," and move on.
Whether or not the rest of the country, who doesn't know him, has moved on from that, is irrelevant to Bennett and the team. If that's something fans elsewhere can point to as criticism, still, it's of no concern to Union now, because they know what makes the team tick, and know that good, tough people can make mistakes and grow from it.
"It was a tough situation. Emotions got the best of all of us," Carr said. "But I think once it was over, we tried to put it behind us and come together as a team.
"I think that's the most extreme you'll ever see from Coach Bennett. I just think — I'd go through the wall for him. But ... it's not his character. But that's what he's willing to do for his players."
Said Gostisbehere, "He definitely apologized for it, but we're past that now. He knows he made a mistake, and we made a mistake as players too. But we just moved past it and got on with our season."
And what a season it's been.